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Zellige, the Tiles of Morocco

The beautiful Zellige of Morroco (it means "tile" in Arabic) made their appearance around the 10th century. Probably inspired by the Roman and Byzantine mozaics. Colour palette was limited to white and shades of brown.

Under the Merinids (14th century) the art flourished. By the 17th century, blue, red, green and yellow were in use. The 20th century saw new colours being introduced as glazes were imported and added to the traditional colours.

Iconography of the Islamic tiles

Although the meaning of the colours and patterns is now mostly lost to the tile artisans, this was not the case in much of the history of the Zellige. The traditional colours, brown, green, white, saffron, blue and black had symbolic meaning in islam. White, black and brown symbolized the spirit under Sufi imagery. The 4 elements were represented by Red for fire, dry and hot, yellow for air, moist and hot, blue for earth, dry and cold, green for water, moist and cold.

The forms also had meanings and just as the European population understood the meaning of various colours and objects in European paintings and art, the muslim Arabs would understand what was being implied by the tiles. Contemplating the tiles might inspire the viewer into a meditation which often had religious implications.

fountain located in fez medina surrounded by traditional moroccan zellige

How are Morroccan Tiles Made?

In this article I will focus on the tiles used in the traditional Moroccan mozaics which have become known as Zellige, or Zellije.

Clay is prepared and shaped

The process starts, as all traditional ceramics, by extracting clay from either underground mines or open pits. Fez was able to develop a zellige industry because of its deposits of suitable clay. Depending on the impurities such as rocks or organic matter, the clay is prepared. Often by pulverizing the dry clay, wetting it to a slurry, filtering out rocks and branches or other impurities, then letting the slurry settle and dry to a shapable consistancy.

Depending on the scale of the operation various machines can be used. Whatever the technique, the clay is worked till it is plastic and free from air bubbles. Strong young apprenctices are a great help in getting the clay ready!

Typically the clay is prepared in a measured lump that gets pounded on a smooth surface with the help of a large flat mallet which has a cutting side used to square off the tile. Another method is to place a softer clay into a thin mold. The tile are sized to 10 x10 centimetres by about 1 cm thick.

The shaped tiles are then allowed to dry. It is important that they dry evenly otherwise they will tend to curl or warp.

Firing the Zellige

After thoroughly drying, the tiles are ready for firing. This is done in a traditional shaped beehive kiln fired by the waste of olive pressing. The pulp and pits that are left after the olive oil has been extracted. The tiles are stacked to allow the heat to penetrate evenly and avoid warping.

Glazing the Tiles

In order to seal the Zellige so that it will resist water, and sport the lovely colours traditionally used in Morocco, the tiles are glazed. The glazing materials will be suspended in a water slurry and each tile will be dipped face down. This is done by hand. The bottom of the tile is not glazed and the sides are only partially covered. Because the tiles are quite porous and the weather dry, the glaze is almost immediately dry and tiles are piled gently to wait for the next step.

Glazed zellige tiles are loaded in kiln

Traditional glazes were tricky to use and results was quite variable for some colours. Pinks and reds are notoriously difficult. Some colours required reduction atmospheres in the kiln while others need oxidation. Some colours prefered alkaline conditions.

The adoption of modern glaze preparation made the life of the tile maker easier and expanded the colours available. Modern glaze mixtures are not as toxic as some of the old formulas which often contained lead.

Colour is the result of metal oxides being included in the glaze. Although the word paint and enamel is used the coating is a true glaze.

In larger workshops one colour only gets fired in a kiln at one time, this allows for better control of temperature suited for that colour. In smaller workshop, experience has taught the masters how to stack their kilns to take advantage of the variations in temperature throughout the kiln, so they can fire different colours together.

Shaping the Tiles

Unlike European tiles that get shaped and glazed, and are then used as is, Moroccan Zellige gets shaped after the glazing.

The intricate designs are made from small pieces of tiles that have been chiseled and chipped into shapes from the glazed tile blanks.

zellige tiles are cut using a traditional hammer|chisel

It is the Master Cutter (the Maalam Nakach) who shapes the Zellige. He will mark a the shapes on the blank by tracing around a master pattern using a sharpened stick dipped in paint. These patterns are carefully produced for a project and help keep the tiles uniform.

Using a traditional chisel--hammer called a menqach, which is kept very sharp, the maalam Nakach (Master cutter) chips away at the tile and precisely cuts the shape he has marked. Sometimes in more intricate shapes the master will do the hard part and chip the shape and an apprentice will complete the shaping. Each tile is beveled so that the back is thinner than the front, to allow space between the tiles, for the cement or plaster that will glue the mosaic together.

A great deal of accuracy is required since the tiles will be set with the minimum of space between them. Most assemblages have almost non existant grout lines.

zellige tiles are cut using a traditional hammer|chisel

The chisel has a sharp knife like edge and a sharp corner that provides a pointy edge. He works against a metal anvil or another piece of tile, set into a heavy stone or piece of cement. The anvil varies in size but provides a backing to hammer and chip against. The shape of the anvil varies on the preference of the master. The master cuts holding the tile against the anvil in one hand and the chisel in the other hand.

(The same kind of chisel is used to produce the excised tiles, often Koranic scripts, where a tile is chipped around the design exposing the buff coloured body and leaving the glazed design or script behind.)

Some links

MOROCCO DESIGNS has a fabulous selection of tiles and information about zellige and other Moroccan creations, well worth a visit

Check out Jacques Allain's Blog He has several Do it Yourself for Mosaics and ebooks. In French but interesting. Get Google to translate

Wikipedia article on Moroccan Zellige

Moroccan Tiles continues on page 2


This web site reflects my personal ideas and doesn't represent anyone else's point of view.